I am a bit of a unique Fulbrighter in Belgium. I have had the unusual privilege to serve as a grantee twice here, thirteen years apart. The first time was to teach English in 2005-6 at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve. That experience was the beginning of a lifetime connection between me and le plat pays. In the years since then, I returned many times for short visits and to maintain old friendships, including those with my cokotteurs (student dorm roommates) and my original Fulbright contact person in Hasselt, with whose family I have become very close. Meanwhile, after finishing my studies at Berkeley, I established an academic career in African studies. Now, in 2018-19, as an assistant professor at George Mason University, I have had the honor to return to Belgium. This time, the Fulbright Commission welcomed me as a scholar in order to undertake archival research on colonial literature and history at the Africa Museum in Tervuren—the iconic and eternally controversial site of Belgium’s memory of its colonial past.
A highlight from this year has been the discovery of the Congo Research Network, an association of scholars who work on all aspects of Congolese studies. I am referring, of course, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast country in Central Africa that in times past was a personal colony of King Leopold II (1885-1908) and a colony of Belgium properly speaking (1908-1960). Although the CRN includes scholars from around the world, it is especially active in Belgium: Brussels functions, I dare say, as a kind of world capital of Congo studies outside Congo. Simply by sending a couple of emails to like-minded scholars, I found myself warmly welcomed to a series of very productive events, both formal and informal: lectures, one-on-one meetings, meals, etc. Historians, anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, and legal scholars were among my interlocutors this year. Below are two flyers for events that the CRN helped organize during 2018-19 and which I had the privilege to attend.
The first is for a lecture series in Brussels on Central African history organized by Benoît Henriet and Amandine Lauro—authors of a wonderful takedown of typical myths about Belgian colonialism that made a buzz in the national media. (Prof. Lauro also has an awesome blog about “pearls,” and all manner of other little gems, from her research on colonial history—check it out here.) The second poster is for an event that was not limited to Africa: it brought researchers working in many geographic locations to Ghent to present critical approaches to the idea of “afterlives.” How do we think about death, grief, trauma, and the forms of life that continue in their wake? The case of Congo, a country with a particularly traumatic history, was the subject of the keynote speaker, Nancy Rose Hunt. Her presentation explored the notion of “afterlives” of colonial violence in relation to her recent book, A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo.
The CRN made an especially impressive display of its dynamism through its PhD Days, held at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel on May 28-29, 2019. The format for this event paired each presenter, a graduate student in any discipline of Congo studies, with two respondents: a fellow graduate student and an established scholar. The result was that field’s future stars received a variety of interdisciplinary feedback on early drafts of their dissertation work. The event’s keynote speaker, Justin Bisanswa, opened up a lively debate on the nature of Congolese literature. Is this country’s canon defined by its classics, that is, the works of francophone, largely expatriate authors whose published works can easily reach an international audience? Writers in this category would include the likes of V.Y. Mudimbe, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, and Koli Jean Bofane. Or might Congolese literature also include ephemeral and popular forms, such as comic strips in African languages, performance genres like hip hop and slam, and local spurts of (often NGO-sponsored) creative writing and filmmaking? The speaker and audience wrestled productively with these questions. Cherie Rivers Ndaliko and Maëline Le Lay are two Congo scholars who were not present, but whose important work in this areas influenced the debate.
I am grateful to the CRN, particularly Katrien Pype, for welcoming me as a newcomer, and to the Fulbright commission for making this precious encounter possible. The opportunity to dialogue with colleagues in a variety of disciplines not only deepened my exposure to Central African studies, but also generated a spurt of new ideas and plans for future collaborations. Over the academic year, I was drawn to go beyond colonial history—the subject of my Fulbright project—to lay the groundwork for future research on contemporary issues in this vast and misunderstood country. Right after my Fulbright year ended, I even went to Congo to make initial preparations for some of this new work… But that is a story for another day.
The CRN’s webpage is unfortunately inactive, but it does have a very active and incredibly useful email listserv. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a strong chance you’re a current or prospective Fulbrighter in Belgium. Given the vicissitudes of history, there is a decent chance that you have a research interest in Congo. If that is the case, you are welcome to subscribe to the CRN listserv by emailing Roger Alfani.
Thank you, CRN! I look forward to keeping in touch. Hope to see you all in Kinshasa next year!
Jonathon Repinecz is a 2018-19 Fulbright Scholar to Belgium. He is an assistant professor of French at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State